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How simulations take learning to the next level

Students’ hunger for knowledge can’t be satisfied with dry theory only; they need to see how things apply in real life situations.

Theories are of course important, after all, the first step to becoming a specialist in any field is building a theoretical foundation. But, at the same time, having a vast amount of theoretical knowledge isn’t enough to become a true connoisseur of your area of expertise. There are many things that can be taught or learned from books, but theory should always be backed up with practical knowledge as well.

You know what they say: study and practice make a master.

Still, what about situations where data is insufficient or unreliable, and/or putting a theory into practice comes with life-threatening risks?

Enter the world of simulations!

What exactly is a simulation? Well, just head over to Google, and you’ll find out that a simulation is an imitation of the operation of a real-world process or system over time. For certain operations, we cannot experience the real thing, therefore using a simulation to replicate it allows us to get as close to the real-world process as possible.

The best example to demonstrate the point is that of simulations for flight training. Pilots don’t learn how to fly a plane by studying instruction manuals. They need to actually operate machines and learn what each and every button, lever and stick does. Most people have the luxury to learn new things by trial and error, but trainee pilots can’t afford any error. One mistake or pushing the wrong button in a real aircraft could lead to dire consequences, therefore to avoid this happening, initial training will take place in a flight simulator.

Aviation is not the only industry that could benefit from simulation in their training programs. Other high risk industries such as oil and gas, electric power, firefighting, or healthcare are obvious candidates. Students that want to become professionals in these industries need a secure and controlled learning environment where they can evaluate themselves in different scenarios and acquire practical knowledge without any casualties.

What’s more, students of all ages and of a wide range of subjects can benefit from learning through simulation.

How simulation takes learning to the next level

There are many practical applications of simulation in the education system. They can help students in all school levels to better understand abstract concepts and other complex learning materials. For example, the Exploration Series of The K-12 Organisation offer some great physics and chemistry simulations for middle school and high school students.

Simulation allows the users to interact with the learning environment, make changes and see instant results of their actions. And the best part is that they can make as many mistakes as they need before completely understanding the concept that they are learning.

This combination of interactivity, immediate feedback and trial and error — plus the added fun factor — makes the students more interested in what they learn, while engaging more with the learning environment. If students are given the chance to try out what they have learned theoretically, they will have a practical overview of the material and therefore will gain a deeper understanding of how things work in reality.

There are numerous software tools that allow teachers and educators to create simulations that can be used in the classroom. As a simulation creator, you need to identify the top tasks that the students will be required to do, and then design the simulation accordingly. Students will have to perform the designed steps and you can add additional information along the way. And once you create an educational simulation, you can use it again and again, and scale it when necessary.

Looking towards the future

I really believe that simulations will become the norm for teaching applied sciences. Perhaps this will happen rather later than sooner, but simulations have the immense potential of taking learning to the next level.